The Top 6 Social Media Campaigns That Changed Advertising

These Campaigns Dominated Social Media and Inspired an Industry

It’s hard to believe that there was once a world without social media. In fact, it’s only really become a massive part of life in the last decade, and the advertising industry took its sweet time before really committing to social as part of the media mix. Facebook has been around since 2004, Twitter came along two years later in 2006, and Instagram in 2010. But very few campaigns really embraced the power of social media in a way that changed the industry, and forced it to look to this important communication tool as a way to spread ideas, and reach consumers. Here are six that broke the mold. 

The Ice Bucket Challenge – The ALS Association

Heidi Klum dumps a bucket of ice on Project Runway host Tim Gunn.

Taylor Hill / FilmMagic / Getty Images

The fact that this social media campaign needs no introduction speaks volumes about its incredible success. The chances are, you either did the Ice Bucket Challenge yourself, or you were nominated in a friend or family member's video. The idea was actually around for several years before the ALS Association adopted it, but it only became a viral sensation after Matt Lauer did the challenge on an episode of The Today Show in July 2014.

So, what is the Ice Bucket Challenge and the ALS Association all about? Well, ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (known more colloquially as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a condition that affects the body’s ability to move and function, and can eventually lead to complete paralysis. When the condition starts to become noticeable, there is a feeling of numbness in the arms and legs, and thus, pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over someone raised awareness of those symptoms.

The massive success of the campaign, which spread like wildfire over many social platforms, is due to the nomination of someone in the person’s video. In effect, people were not just watching, but being dared to actively participate for a good cause. Celebrities around the world made their own videos, and more than 2.4 million videos were shared to Facebook alone. An incredible success story resulting in huge donations to the ALS Association. 

Will It Blend? – Blendtec

What kind of a maniac would put a new iPhone or iPad into a blender? Well, a really savvy social media marketer, that’s who. There have been ads and infomercials for various blenders over the decades, and most are a real snooze-fest following the same old formula. Show a blender making a smoothie, soups, crushing ice, and so on. Tom Dickson, founder of Blendtec, had a different idea. Everyone knows a blender can do that, but can it blend things that people know to be tough?

That’s when he created the Will it Blend? Web video series, donning a pair of safety goggles and putting the blender to the ultimate test. Everything from golf balls and marbles, to cubic zirconia and half a cooked chicken. But when Dickson threw an iPhone in the blender, the web went crazy. The video, to date, has received over 12 million views. When he put the iPad in the blender, over 18 million people watched. The videos were shared on social media millions of times, and sales of the Blendtec blender rose over 700%.

“Smell Like a Man, Man” – Old Spice

Old Spice had a serious credibility issue. It was a joke. Mention it to anyone and they recall the guy surfing with the choral soundtrack, and seeing a bottle of it in grandpa’s bathroom. It was not hip or cool. And it was never going to be. Well, not quite. In February of 2010, a phenomenal ad starring the suave and insanely attractive Isaiah Mustafa hit the airwaves and the Internet. An incredible feat of preparation, the over-the-top ad has, to date, been watched over 54 million times.

However, the campaign kicked into a new gear when it launched the “Smell Like a Man, Man” social media series. Fans of the ads (and it had many) were prompted to ask Isaiah a question over Twitter. Rather than simply having a social media agency type a few quirky replies, the Old Spice guy himself responded to the questions in a series of custom-made videos. Over 180 different replies were filmed, and the campaign received over 2,000 questions in just 48 hours. The result—over 105 million YouTube impressions, $1.2 billion in earned media, an increase of 2,700%, 800%, and 300% to Twitter, Facebook, and respectively, and the Old Spice YouTube channels becoming the #1 most viewed sponsored channel of the time.

To put some of this into perspective, during the first 24 hours of the campaign, the videos were viewed more times than President Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech. Needless to say, it has become one of the benchmarks of modern social campaigns. 

Our Blades Are F**king Great –

The top comment on this legendary ad is “this is how you get people to not click “skip ad” on YouTube.” That, in essence, is what makes this 90-second ad so tremendously successful. The ad itself is not all about special effects and big-budget spectacle. It’s Mike, the founder of the company, talking to you like you’re an actual human being and not a generic target audience or broad demographic.

During the ad, he delivers a speech so sharp and funny that it’s more like a piece of stand-up comedy than a pitch for a new kind of razor delivery service. Here’s just a taste:

“For a dollar a month, we send high-quality razors right to your door. Yeah. A dollar. Are the blades any good? No. Our blades are f**king great.”


“And do you think your razor needs a vibrating handle, a flashlight, a back scratcher, and ten blades? Your handsome-ass grandfather had one blade…and Polio.”

The style of the video, clearly poking fun at the founder from time to time (saying he’s great at tennis while he misses the ball) was an instant hit. Everyone was watching it, and it generated millions of views (to date, that number is over 25 million), which translates to millions of dollars in earned media. 

Now that small company is owned by Unilever, which bought it in a $1 Billion all-cash acquisition. Since that video first hit the social media scene, clients everywhere have been asking for a “Dollar Shave Club kinda thing.” Which means? Well, funny, ballsy, unapologetic, and filmed on a shoestring budget. But none of that matters if the product or service doesn’t live up to the hype. saw a problem that no-one was solving. Razor blade replacements are really expensive, so why not find a way to offer them at a crazy low price…and ship them to you? Now that’s innovation. 

Subservient Chicken – Burger King

The ad campaign for Subservient Chicken, which hit the airwaves in 2004, was fun but nothing outstanding. In one ad, you saw a guy looking through a few Polaroid pictures (remember those) while telling the chicken what to wear. Good. But nothing compared to what came next.

Viewers were instructed to go to, where they were greeted with a shoddy webcam view of a 6ft tall chicken. It just stood there, waiting for people to type in phrases and respond. And that’s what made this campaign such a huge hit. People were asking it to lay an egg, jump rope, Moonwalk, or turn the lights off. And…it did it.

People thought they were actually interacting with the chicken, but in reality, over 300 responses were pre-filmed and coded to respond to keywords. And if one of the directives wasn’t in that 300, the chicken would simply refuse to do it, or in the case of something naughty, wag his finger at you.

The campaign went viral. Big time. The site had over a billion hits, and was, without doubt, the first truly interactive piece of marketing that went viral. “This is also one of the first examples of nonlinear advertising. Until then, marketers and agencies were obsessed with ‘storytelling’—a word that I despise,” said Rai Inamoto, VP & Chief Creative Officer at AKQA. Remember, this was back in 2004…the iPhone did not hit the stores until three years later, in June of 2007. Smartphones weren’t a thing. Sharing wasn’t as easy. And yet, this campaign literally shook the ad industry to its very foundation. 

The Campaign for Real Beauty – Dove

Although it has had some stumbles recently, notably with the introduction of body-shaped bottles and the “black into white” online ad, Dove created a campaign that wasn’t just about selling products; it was about changing society and the notion of what real beauty is. 

The campaign had its roots in London and Canada, with interactive messages asking users if the model was fat or fit, grey or gorgeous, and wrinkled or wonderful. It started the conversation about beauty, and the societal norms that go hand in hand with typical ad campaigns for beauty.

However, it was the Dove Film “Evolution of a Model” that kicked the campaign into a much higher gear. The film exposes the fact that these days, the camera not only lies…it tells whoppers. We start on a young woman with shiny skin, blemishes, and no makeup. She’s pretty, but not the image of perfection we see in advertising every day. Then, the work begins. Professional hair and makeup, an expensive photo shoot, and hours of retouching in Photoshop. By the end of the video, the model at the beginning is almost unrecognizable to the one we see at the end.

This didn’t just touch a nerve, it was the catalyst to talk about the problem with so much of advertising and entertainment. The standards set are unrealistic, and people in everyday life will never live up to them. The perfect man or woman only exists in a world of lies used to sell products.

Dove became the champion for real beauty. That video has had over 19 million views to date, and other Dove films have seen similar success. And not only did Dove become a supporter of all women, whatever shape or size, they saw a massive increase in sales. From $2.5 billion to well over $4 billion as the campaign rolled out.

Of the six campaigns featured here, this one is by far the most important. To actually stir up the conversation about beauty, AND increase sales at the same time. That’s impressive. 

The Future of Social Campaigns

Will advertisers and brands be able to replicate the success that these campaigns achieved? That's hard to say. There is so much clutter, with ads always trying to get us to interact or get something to go viral, that these kinds of numbers may be impossible to achieve again. It will take a combination of the right product, the right timing, and a truly inspiring idea.